The Work Between Us

The Work Between Us

I should like to make a plea for visual art everywhere. Or, more specifically, to ask that we rethink the ways by which we frame art in order to return to it what is proper to art. Of course, we may not all agree on what this might be. But we might all concede that, despite a decade of ‘multiculturalism’, however this is defined, we are no closer to a mutual respect and understanding of one another’s art practices and what they may signify than we were in the heyday of modernism. It is in the shadow of multiculturalism that these speculations on the propriety of art arise.

In attempting to assess the current state of internationalism in the visual arts, it is difficult, from the perspective of practice, not to feel that visual art in general is caught in a double bind that undermines its proper function which, I am suggesting here, is that of a mediator in the aesthetic and ethical relation between oneself and another. On the one hand, art is seriously challenged in its effectiveness at addressing the nature of contemporary realities by the weighty visual culture produced by technology, and its obvious greater global reach. The influence of mass media in the Western world is evidence enough that art is not the means by which contemporary society at large represents itself, placing in question art’s social role, and even its relevance. On the other hand, art has been absorbed into discussions of cultural context that treat it, and the artist, as a sub-category of social anthropology. Regarding its international context, art is currently ensnared in debates of cultural difference and identity that are noticeably lacking in critical discussion about the work itself. Thus, what remains underdeveloped are transcultural studies of aesthetic practice that would extend our understanding of the art of others beyond ethnic typology.

This lament is not, however, intended to advocate a return to the formalist critique of earlier decades. We are all too aware of modernism’s dual privileges: an assumed transcendent meaning for art at the expense of its historical and socio-political context; and an emphasis on the point of origin (the authentic, autonomous ‘author’) at the expense of reception (the ‘reader’). Doubtless, the post-structuralist proclamation of the ‘death of the (Enlightenment) author’ fuelled an already operative shift in art practice attentive to the conditions of reception, which opened the way to a dialogical relation between the work of art and the viewer. Privileging the point of origin has, however, crept back with the demand that artists declare their ethnic affiliations.

The writing of art, especially from an internationalist perspective, is overburdened by theoretical debates about cultural difference and identity, coming from disciplines that facilely see art production as just one among many decodable semiotic systems readily available for appropriation into the analyses of social anthropology. Yet art does not in any straightforward way represent an indexical real. Such studies bring little understanding of the aesthetic and ethical nature of art practice, of the experiential and material base of the art object, nor of theories of reception. Cultural identity and difference are not in themselves proper to art; and yet an essential demand of art is attentiveness to the relation between a self and another. This, however, is a different matter, and one that demands closer attention.

Critical Mass: Art and Technology

The burgeoning of global telecommunications and information technology has complicated an already confused international scenario. At present art cannot compete with either the resources or the means of distribution of information technology. What we have is a conflict between different spatiotemporal languages: art as a form of embodied, material production (irrespective of whether the material is video or wood) base in real-time relations with a present or somehow located subject, in confrontation with a computerised technology whose essence is its disembodiedness – it lack of spatial or territorial boundaries and temporal continuity. In effect, ‘telegraphic technology’, as Lyotard calls it, modifies our experience of time-space (because a message can be endlessly reproduced at any time and any distance from its point of transmission) and modifies our relation with the body and memory. (Because only the point of transmission and the point of reception are initially important, intimate knowledge of the territory in between is irrelevant.) It is, in short, a technology that deterritorialises and detemporalises the space-time of ‘traditional’ or pre-industrial cultural patterns – patterns of production, exchange and consumption together with belief systems bound to the conditions of a given geography and time.

This destabilisation of time-space is intrinsic to the technologies of capitalism and the communications networks – we need only look at the global inequalities and disjunctions operating between the sites of production of raw materials, the sites of production of goods and the sites of consumption, not only of certain commercial products but also of ideas and ideologies. The downside of this situation is that, because we have no way of assessing the truth of an event or information produced at a distance from its site of reception, we then risk becoming hostages to prefabricated interpretations of reality and opinions circulated by media channels. This affects the interpretation of the past as well as the present; as Foucault once said, ‘we are told not only who we are nut who we must remember having been.’ In this way, we also risk being drawn into myths of nationhood or identity that disable our potential to think through possible alternative pasts, futures and identities, or to forge different relationships with others.

Taking a pessimistic view, the situation indeed looks like producing an homogenised and commodified global culture privileging the demands of who or whatever controls the communications media. This may no longer be the nation-state but the multinational corporation, which is already a deterritorialised entity; concerned primarily with production and consumption, it has no ethical allegiance to any territory or community beyond the necessity of maintaining the efficiency of its operations. Since efficiency takes priority over judgements on aesthetic or ethical grounds, technologies linked to corporatism lie beyond the province of traditional ethical frameworks and practices. If there can be such a thing as ethical responsibility under these conditions, we need to ask what forms it can take and where it might be located. Despite ‘80s postmodern pronouncements on the death of humanism, the persistence of inequalities and inhumanities make it imperative to reinvent some form of humanism – one that certainly discards Eurocentric premises, such as the universalism of Western values and, above all, that discards an intersubjective relation which treats the other as an inferior version of the self.

Critical Impasse: Art and Cultural Debates

Over the past ten years in Europe we have seen the escalation of ‘geopolitically’ or ‘ethnically’ themed museum shows, trading off theoretical debates on multiculturalism or ‘cultural identity and difference’; at the same time, opportunities for individual black curators and artists to show their work have visibly declined. With regard to the art system, what we see are the shifting sands of ‘postmodern’ relativism: on the one hand, a recognition of the voice of the ‘Other’, but a continuing control of the conditions of its reception; and on the other, with the weakening of modernity’s universalist project, a cacophony of different positions thrown into a stew-pot, lacking any criteria by which to adjudicate aesthetic or ethical values or meanings other than cultural difference itself, and this tends to be over-simplified or commodified to the point of trivialisation.

Mostly packaged and received according to Eurocentric, preconceived expectations about the acceptable form and content of others’ cultural productions, too many exhibitions have maintained their separation and distance from ‘mainstream’ art system concerns, thereby ensuring that the latter’s coherence (if not superiority) remains intact. In other words, while purporting to close the gap between the West and the Rest, multicultural strategies have generally tended to legitimise marginality, and thereby to uphold the old colonial relations.

A new troubling tendency has emerged whereby the terms of artists’ awards, such as grantsa and residencies, are so circumscribed by cultural prescriptions set by the institution that the artist’s freedom to choose her or his own agenda is severely limited, forcing the artist into the role of ethnographer or social historian, and exacerbating the tension between art’s autonomy and social space. In a sense this is to draw a limit around the art pratices of ‘others’. Artists have always been magpies, alert to new visual strategies and aesthetic ideas, absorbing influence from whatever visual resources are available to them, and limited only by the horizon of knowledge, or the information flow, of the society in which they are living. To deny an artist entitlement to this exchange is to imply cultural stagnation.

Alternative global histories have been emerging from outsider the Western metropolitan centres, making it apparent that modernism, far from being the exclusive domain of the West, has always been a mutual negotiation between pre-industrial and industrial life-worlds, both inside and outside Western borders. These histories point to a plurality of modernisms, each with its own local inflection. Cultural tradition, then, should perhaps be seen not as fixed, or worse, in stagnation, but as a dynamic process of selecting and transforming the novel into the terms of its own symbolic order, without relinquishing its own meanings – a resistance to colonising effects, in short. There is a question, therefore, whether ‘hybridity’ is a suitable name for cultural productions in which disparate terms may not be in a dialectical relation with any view to ‘resolution’, so much as held in the constantly shifting paradox of incommensurability. From this perspective, how far do national borders or identities apply to artistic practices?

So-called ‘postcolonial’ debates in the West remain preoccupied with ‘cultural difference’ or ethnicity’ while evading the political and economic inequalities existing between the West and its others. These inequalities operate at both the intranational level (insofar as the aesthetic and political concerns of artists of non-European origin remain marginal to mainstream interests and hence poorly supported), and at a transnational level (insofar as the economic gap between the capitalist world and the developing countries continues to widen, making any active control by the latter over their own cultural productions increasingly difficult). In these respects, as has often been pointed out, postcolonial discourses appear to conceal the actual conditions of West/Rest relations, deepening the complicity of the intelligentsia with neo-colonial forces.

This is visible in the tendency of curators to sample the non-Western world, looking for cultural authenticity, which has distorted its art productions and markets. For instance, Everlyn Nicodemus has pointed out that the ‘90s collecting boom in naïve or folkloric African art has lead to the suppression of African artists educated in modernism. Or put another way, African artists are denied the use of global culture capital, which European artists have always taken for granted as their patrimony. Given the continuing paternalistic economic and political relations between Africa and Europe, it is not unreasonable to attribute this preference for the folkloric-touristic to the fact that African modernism challenges the ongoing fantasy of Africa as existing in some kind of intellectual childhood needing paternal guidance from the West. As Nicodemus has also pointed out (in an essay for the exhibition catalogue to the exhibition Seven Stories from Africa, Whitechapel Gallery, 1995), by the early 20th century, cultural exchange between Africa and Europe – not to forget a long history of Africa’s exchange with Asia and the Arab world – was reciprocal. African artists were experimenting with Western figuration and easel painting at the same time that Picasso was doodling with African sculptural forms. But this reciprocity produced a paradox: what was considered avant-garde from the point of view of European modernism was regarded as un-modern from an African perspective, and vice versa. To recognise this paradox is already to begin to shift the terms of the ‘self-other’ relation between Africa and Europe.

What is Proper to Art?

Cultural difference and identity are not directly proper to art, as already mentioned; they relate rather to the domain of the art system – to what Pierre Bourdieu identified as the habitus, the structures of inclusion and exclusion that unconsciously bind any community. However, the issue at stake for art circulates around the structures of spectatorship – the mode of address by which art seeks to appeal to its viewer. This means exactly an attentiveness to the relation between self and other, and how the object mediates this relation.

This relation is still bound by Eurocentric terms. Insofar as Western multiculturalism persists in the binarist strategy of measuring and naming the Other – i.e., identifying, classifying, territorialising, or otherwise fixing it according to the West’s ethnic parameters – it fails to grasp difference, since to represent difference is to disappear it – and hence to foreclose the possibility of another relation. It seems imperative to seek different ways of conceptualising subjectivity where the other (which is, in the long run, anyone who is not I, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, gender, etc) is acknowledged as a fully cognitive subject in its own right, not as a mirror, or something there for the reassurance of the self – which was the task Emmanuel Levinas set himself. For Levinas, the relation between self and other could not be symmetrical because since his ‘being for the other’ was not contingent on the expectation of any reciprocity. In any case, this is a matter of ethics and aesthetics.

This may also be said to be the condition of spectatorship in art. Where the ethical is assumed to lie simply in the ‘message’ or subject matter we are in the territory of already circulating signs and meanings – of information, together with its attendant value judgements and prescribed interpretations – which is the domain of the media. Of course, this is often, in our laziness, what we demand of art – that it gives us ready-made interpretations of the world. It is also the strategy of forms of ‘politicised’ art, which do not pay sufficient attention to the affectiveness of the aesthetic carrier, confusing the proper place of the ethical in art.

Art does not transmit information. It is not concerned with representations of the ‘indexical real’, or with efficient communication of the sort endorsed by mass technologies. The reality it presents bears no direct relation with any natural referent, and it is not a readily decodable system of signs, such as photo-reportage or a television soap opera. On the contrary, in its critical mode, it works to uncouple the habitual relations between meaning and referent, exposing rather the bathos of an essential incommunicability between self and other. The success of systematic visual codes is that they can function efficiently at a distance from their source – they are readily reproducible. Art, by contrast, up until now (we await the effects of the Internet), has demanded a more intimate, bodily engagement with the viewer, less concerned with perception than with reminiscence. Vision here is haptic; it is a sense of touch, and it implicates other sensory mechanisms – sound, smell, rhythm, spatiality, and so forth: an aesthetic dimension that is not reproducible, not fixed, and asks for attentiveness from the viewer. By contrast to the disembodiment of telecommunications, art re-embodies the viewing subject. It does not attempt to tell us who we are, but rather asks, Who are you? and, Where do you stand? In this respect, art parallels pre-industrial patterns of exchange. If this is art’s anachronism and crisis in the face of both technology and cultural theory, it also presents a pivotal moment when different ethical realities among embodied selves and others may be imagined, beyond the territorial constraints of geographic borders or the disembodied fictions of technology.

In Trade Routes: History + Geography, catalogue to the Second Johannesburg Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor, 1997, pp 20 – 23.